Stories from the classroom: March Edition


The Spring semester has started, and I’m in charge of teaching Oral English to the freshman this time around. Bobby had them last semester, and I’m kind of annoyed that he gave them a list of names to choose from, without telling them not to all pick the same name! so, I now have THREE Sarahs in one class, two Alans (though interestingly, one is a boy and the other a girl), and a Jack. There is always a Jack in every class, every semester, everywhere in China. Thanks, Titanic

Still, some of the students are creative and had a name ready prior to starting college. There’s a girl named SEVEN, a Jinx, a Coco, a K-Caroline (undoubtably influenced by K-Pop) … and a guy who goes by “Jessie Pinkman


I prepared a lesson about hotels; the activity required students to take turns playing receptionists and guests at made up hotels, and they fill out an index card with information regarding Price, Check-Out Time, location of the Swimming Pool, and Wifi Password

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this is  a saltwater infinity pool- you get a view of the ocean, and you won’t smell like chlorine when you step out of the pool

The students begin to murmur and look excited, and that’s when I asked several questions and based on their responses, realized I’m horribly out of touch, in the Chelsea Clinton “I tried to care about money but couldn’t” kind of way.

  • None of my students had ever seen the ocean before. I should have known this, and quickly rectified the situation (“Close your eyes, imagine you are walking barefoot in the sand, and the cold ocean water suddenly rushes up to your knees” A lot of my students were grinning wildly with their eyes squeezed shut, at the imagined experience of being swept into the sea)
  • Most of the students had never stayed in a hotel/ inn/ motel before. For some of them, coming to college in Lanzhou was the first time they got on a train and left their home towns.
  • NONE OF MY STUDENTS KNOW HOW TO SWIM! I had this horrifically prejudiced, quaint little picture in my head that all my rural students had a pond or stream in their backyards where they frolicked in the wilderness. Realistically, they probably picked melon and potatoes every summer since the age of five. Swimming lessons- and access to a pool – are a privilege for the rich. Our school has neither an indoor gymnasium nor swimming pool- this is Gansu after all.

Despite the risk of imaginary drowning, they did well with hotel activity, and were mostly just concerned with making up a crazy wifi password for their guests


I no longer teach sophomores and was a bit sad about this, since they were my first batch of students. But I ran into a few sophomore girls around campus and invited their dorm (8 English majors living in a tiny room!!) over for dinner on the weekend. We planned to make hotpot, so the girls picked up vegetables to cook, while I got a broth ready; potatoes, tomatoes, leek, and carrots made the base.

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healthy stock
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a mini buffet of goodies for the meal. my students were extremely efficient at washing, peeling, and chopping the raw vegetables, tofu, and ham

This was supposed to be a healthy, light dinner… until Vivan unveiled her secret weapon. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the girls gleefully empty an IV of spicy oil (by volume, about a cup and a half of pure chili oil) over my vegetable stock.

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what’s wrong with this photo?
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So there was now a 1 cm deep fiery wall of red liquid and crushed peppercorn separating me from all my spinach, cabbage, tofu, and mushrooms.

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The soup has become a bright red broth. the girls also added chili sauce to their individual bowls. you can never have too much spice!

North-West Chinese eat everything with vinegar and chili oil- anything short of ‘explosively hot’ lacks flavor, according to their atrophied and withered tastebuds. I was sweating profusely during the meal, and we had all the windows open to get some cold March air in the living room.

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Nonetheless, we ate until we were full, and gossiped a lot. I found out one of these girls (seated far right) got engaged over winter break, so we now have a wedding to look forward to in the autumn!

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I’m still friends with Vivian, despite the broth debacle

Lost and Found: the Story of a Chinese Family

The first weekend I arrived in Lanzhou back in September, I found myself seated at a  lavish dinner downtown with 10 other people. The guests consisted of the following:

  • A particularly chatty 4 year old, Luna
  • A babbling, teething 8 month old, Ali
  • A couple around 30 years of age
  • Two couples in their late 50s
  • Another couple in their early 80s

I had never met any of them before in my life, but I knew one of the woman was my half aunt, and I was somehow related to everyone else; they were my long lost relatives living in mainland China! I had heard whispers about their existence for many years, but never imagined we would meet in person.

One of many gatherings- four generations of my extended family in one photo

Here is our story:

My great-grandfather was an educated man from Qingyang, Gansu. I still don’t know much about him, other than the fact that he was a school principal in the mid 20th century. He famously shooed the red guards away from his school and insisted his students stay in class when the guards came to poach his flock for their activities.


He had the misfortune of being well-off and well-educated at a time when both traits were highly undesirable. Indeed, he would eventually suffer the same fate that many respectable and well educated men and women would face in that era of modern Chinese history

His son studied at Lanzhou University (where two PCVs are posted today!), married, and had two daughters. My grandfather was an officer with the KMT party, so when the civil war swept through China, he left his wife and kids behind and served in various locations through China. When the KMT was defeated in 1949, he sought refuge in Taiwan and never returned to China.

My grandfather, with his very prominent Gansu nose

He eventually remarried and had three more children- my mother and her siblings. In the early 1980s, after America had re-established formal diplomatic ties with China, my grandfather sent a letter from Taiwan to Gansu, China (through a relative in America) blindly hoping to reconnect with his old family.

there was a one in a million chance that his letter- written to an address he lived at long before the Chinese Civil War began- would be mailed, opened, and read by the right people at the right time… but fate can be full of surprises… he was ultimately able to reconnect with his daughters in Gansu! after 30+ years without contact, they communicated through mail from this point on- travel between China and Taiwan was still completely banned for another decade at least.

My parents moved to America in the mid 1980s, so they were far removed from the eventual reunions that would take place between the Lanzhou and Taipei sides of the family in the 1990s and 2000s.

Fast forward to 2016. While war will tear apart a family for generations, times of peace allow us to reconnect and rebuilt. Yet another improbable situation occurred:  I joined Peace Corps China… got posted in Gansu province, specifically in Lanzhou City, at a school that is biking distance to three of my relatives’ apartments!!!

When it became imminent that i would be placed in Lanzhou for two years of service, my uncle in Taiwan gave me the phone number of a cousin in Lanzhou, and we arranged a big family dinner for my arrival. My weekends are busy these days, with lots of home cooked meals and sharing old stories and photographs over tea.

my half aunt and me – we have the same nose!

Due to the 20+ year gap between my grandfather’s first and second marriages, my aunt is about the same age as my grandmother. (my cousin is 60, the same age as my parents, and his daughter is the same age as me, etc)

making Mian Pian 面片, a Hui specialty only found in North West China. these threads of noodle will be hand torn into shreds  before boiling. i’ll always eat handmade noodles or dumplings paired with cold vegetable dishes at my aunt’s

My uncle is retired now, but used to work as the Director of the Gansu Board of Education. He had opportunities to meet all sorts of fancy people and travel the world as China normalized relations with the West, including the famously classy Mr. Bill Clinton.

my uncle meeting the future President in 1987

My uncle is also an incredible artist and calligrapher, and his work has been sought after by many dignitaries around China. The first time I went to his apartment, he gifted me a painting of a horse! He is also a master poet, and can conjure up heartfelt short poems in mere minutes (he’s written some lines for me, this will be shared in another post!)

a ferocious horse painting (Luna peeping out from behind- more on her later!)

Two generations down the family tree, there is Fay and her husband Ma Qiang. Fay is my half-aunt’s granddaughter, and technically my first-cousin-once-removed, though she is the same age as me.

Ma Qiang is Hui (Chinese Muslim, which is common in Gansu) and Fay converted to Islam prior to their marriage. In my extended family we now have Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims (I’m like a living embodiment of the soon-to-be defunded United Nations! #blessed)

hitting the ski slopes outside Lanzhou with Ma Qiang and Fay

I love hanging out with Fay, Ma Qiang, and his brother on the weekends; the four of us will go out for dinner, then get a massage or hit up KTV to sing. Ma Qiang is thrilled to have an American with him, and requested me to sing three songs: Rihanna’s “Stay”, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”, and Shakira’s “Waka Waka” (um, yes, yes, and YES!!!) We have the same taste in music!

if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it!

We don’t get to stay out as late as we would like because… Fay and Ma Qian also have a one year old baby boy, Ali! He is cute as a button and as his great-uncle (I’m two generations above him) I cannot get enough of his smile and laughter.He also sleeps and cries a lot, but all the crying stops when he sits with his great-grandfather, because they will watch TV together.


There’s also the impossibly energetic four year old Luna, who is Ali’s older cousin. She talks A LOT. Sometimes with us adults, sometimes with imaginary friends, sometimes with Dou Dou, her toy penguin.

Luna always carries Dou Dou, the penguin with her, EVERYWHERE! including to dinner

Both of her parents are college professors (sometimes teaching in different provinces, and even countries, no less!) so she lives one of those awesome but weirdly complicated childhoods where she splits each year between Lanzhou, coastal Xiamen, Dalian, and (currently) America. I can’t wait for the summer when she comes back to Lanzhou.

Luna acting cute, after she just compared her great-grandfather’s head to a ‘shiny mooncake’

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A typical weekend afternoon at my aunt’s home

taking Ali to the zoo!

So this is my extended family in a nutshell! A fateful letter sent nearly 40 years ago gave us a chance to reconnect. Throughout the decades a handful of photos have been mailed between Lanzhou and Taipei (of weddings, births, reunions, graduations, etc) and a few trips were made between the two cities, but I am the first Cheng to meet this side of the family. we have a lot of catching up to do!

Fay: i always wondered who that boy in yellow was. now i know, its you!! (a photo i found in my aunt’s home. I’m on the far right sitting in my mom’s lap, my sister has the bad haircut next to me.  my grandfather is seated on the far left.)

Taiwan, Switzerland of the East

After spending 7 consecutive months in mainland China, a visit to Taiwan over winter break felt like a spa for the brain, a massage for the soul.

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day market in taipei

Mainland China is kinetic and chaotic with 1.4 billion people. Provincial cities like Lanzhou are expanding rapidly, with a metro under construction, high rises half finished, and cars honking nonstop from all the detours and blocked off streets, and sidewalks spilling with people…

Taiwan in contrast, seems… oddly quiet and peaceful. Taipei is orderly- there is none of that pushing or shoving that I’ve been subjected to on a regular basis in China while getting on the public bus or ordering a bowl of noodles (I’ve now ruthlessly mastered the pushing and shoving as well; integration!).

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In Taipei’s metro, people wait along designated lines for the trains to come, and no one will step into the train until all exiting passengers have made their way onto the platform. It is rare to see litter in the streets, and even rarer to see a garbage can at all! anytime i needed directions I asked a stranger, and most were happy to point me in the right direction, or even walk with me for a minute or two, to make sure I would get where I needed to go.

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101 at night

This is partially due to the Japanese mannerisms that the Taiwanese have inherited from 50 years of living under Japanese occupation. (ie. speaking quietly in public spaces, a near obsession for cleanliness, and a communal interest in preserving green space in urban centers). More importantly, Taiwan has less than 2% of China’s population, making it easy to maintain law and order and a general ambiance of good social manners that are expected from developed countries with high GDP per capita. (I imagine if Taiwan also had 1 billion people, eventually people would start smacking each other to get onto the subway as well, regardless of how important their mothers told them it was to be polite to strangers).

So what did I do during my time in the Switzerland of the East?


I ate! A LOT. Taiwanese food is a blend of mainly southern (sweeter) Chinese food with some Japanese ingredients thrown in. Everything I eat in Gansu is spicy and salty… it’s refreshing to have some rock sugar or honey added into your meal.

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i could never get enough of the tropical fruit here

Taiwan is famous for night markets- pedestrian streets lined with food stalls and arcade games. (you can even fish for your own prawn and have the grilled on a skewer for a small fee). The snacks you buy are called 小吃 (little eats), which I could reasonably compare to Spanish tapas.

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Raohe Night Market

My cousins and I spent several nights at various night markets, splitting our time between eating whatever caught our eye, and playing darts/ shooting BB guns to win prizes.

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pokemon has made a comeback i see…

The National Palace Museum

I always make time to visit the national palace museum whenever I am in Taipei. It’s home to the finest collection of Chinese art, anywhere in the world.The collection was amassed through the centuries by imperial families and was mostly housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor and the chaos that followed, it was decided that the entire collection of art should be relocated.

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revolving vases of the Qianlong Emperor

Throughout the 20th century, 10,000 crates of artifacts were transported out of Beijing and relocated time and again throughout China to avoid damage from warfare or falling into enemy hands. In the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, the KMT shipped nearly 3,000 of those crates containing the most prized pieces of art to Taipei. (in the forbidden city’s museum today, the only art left inside is a collection of large European clocks that was deemed unimportant by curators!) Today there are over 650,000 works housed at the National Palace Museum, and only 1% of the collection is available to view at a given time.

i enjoy ceramics the most, but there were jade carvings, bronzes, scroll paintings, calligraphy, decorated clothing, etc

I overheard several tour guides tell the same story: that this ivory ball was carved over three generations of the same family of craftsmen. My uncle said that is a complete lie, and tour guides make stuff up all the time “do you think the Kangxi emperor will wait until he’s dead to receive a carved ivory ball?

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this was allegedly carved by three generations of the same family


With the YouBike share program I biked around the entire city- there are designated lanes – on the sidewalk! – for bicycles, and I found this method of transportation to be even more convenient than the already highly efficient metro system. I lucked out with good weather and took full advantage of the 70 miles of biking path – lush with wild grass and reeds – situated on the banks of the estuary that runs through central Taipei and empties into the Formosa Strait.

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city views from the bike
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a large field of sunflowers in the middle of Taipei, great!


I also met up several times with my good friends living in Taipei, tech entrepreneur Ana and “drama therapist” drama therapist Monique (both made an appearance in my slides about the American Family, where I accused Monique of being a rent-mooch). Taipei has turned into a hipster and foodie haven over the past few years- there are espresso shops selling $5USD cappuccinos on every street corner in the city. we talked about what all young people discuss in Taipei: stagnant wages, exorbitant housing prices, and employment outlook.

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Ana and Monique, friends from New York

Entry level jobs for undergrads start with wages of $1,000 USD a month, shockingly low for a developed economy. By the time you’re 30, you might make $2,000USD a month. (and these people drink $5 lattes every day… only affordable because many live with their parents until marriage. Its important to point out, some financial stress is alleviated because health care and public university costs next to nothing in Taiwan. As it should in any advanced nation =] )

A little online research shows some more startling facts. As of two years ago, Taipei has the most unaffordable property in the world (from a housing price – to – income ratio perspective), beating out New York and London. Million dollar apartments, combined with 40% income tax rates, a hyper competitive education system, and gender equality in the workforce have led many urban families to live a child free life.

Would you like to go 15.2 years without eating or buying new clothes to afford an apartment?

This seems unusual because East Asian families have traditionally put great emphasis on having children and grandchildren, especially sons who carry the last name. And yet the same trend of low birth rates is seen in every developed Asian country – Japan, South Korean, Singapore – and two systems, one country member Hong Kong. (my economics professor once joked that without immigration all of the Asian Tiger nations will go extinct, and someday you will have to go to a museum exhibit to see a Japanese person).

These are issues the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-Wen will need to address in the coming years. For now though, most Millennials in Taiwan are more preoccupied with Pokemon Go than social problems regarding wage equality or property bubbles.

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Harbin “Romance in Winter Days”

*trigger warning* this post contains stories about large, striped animals eating smaller, feathered animals; the latter were sent to their untimely deaths by well-intentioned tourists.

After Beijing I returned to Lanzhou for a week to celebrate the Lunar New Year, then headed back northeast to Harbin in Heilongjiang Province– one of the coldest regions of China. Why would a PCV take a vacation in 0°F temperatures when the rest of his cohort enjoys the beaches of Thailand for a few weeks of sunbathing?

See for Yourself:

a masterpiece of snow sculpting

Harbin has a unique culture that is found nowhere else in China. In the 19th century, a weakened Qing Dynasty could no longer secure its borders and by 1860 the land that is now Heilongjiang province was annexed by the Russian Empire.

Heilongjiang province in red

For this reason, many of the century old buildings in Harbin are designed in a style that mimics what you could see in Moscow or St. Petersburg (there are also Russian dolls and Fabergé eggs sold all over the city that were clearly Made in China, and the Russian restaurants are tourist gimmicks at best).


St. Sofia Cathedral and its surrounding plaza are located in the heart of downtown Harbin. This cathedral is more of a museum now than a house of worship, but it has retained its Russian orthodox onion domes, gold crosses, and stained glass windows.

St Sofia at night. I am eating one of Harbin’s famous ice cream pops- the Popsicles are sold outdoors in boxes without freezers, since the temperature outdoors never reaches above 32F, even on a sunny afternoon

St Sofia Cathedral is the most permanent icon of Harbin, as the equally famous snow and ice sculptures are seasonal offerings… and the city’s other icon is a flash of orange and black stripes…

Siberian Tiger Reserve 东北老虎园


The Siberian Tiger Reserve is basically a zoo, home to only one species of animal – the Panthera tigris altaica – more commonly known as the Siberian Tiger. These felines are native to Manchuria/ the Korean Peninsula and thrive in cold winter weather. At the entrance of the tiger reserve, you can pick up tickets for a steel-clad bus tour of the park, and buy some snacks to feed the tigers:


These goodies include live chicken, live duck, and a live GOAT! (Small goat costs 1,200 RMB/ Large costs 1,500 RMB). I got the cheapest animal to feed the tigers- a live chicken for 60 RMB. I thought I would get to chuck the hen out of our bus by myself, but this is far too dangerous. Instead, halfway through our winter safari, a steel-clad SUV pulls up and ejects the live chicken through the sunroof.

There’s a burst of activity from the closest tigers, a blur of feathers… and a deeply satisfied tiger walks away with a hen firmly clenched in its jaw

Otherwise these tigers have been spoiled and mostly lounge around in heaps, sleeping off the meat that is handed to them on a daily basis.


there were other opportunities to grab a hen and shove her down a chute into the tiger den…
similar to Chengdu’s panda reserve, the park has bred far too many tigers to the point that it probably outnumbers the wild population, and there’s no real scientific value to having the tiger factory pump out felines at its current rate

Harbin Sun Island Snow Festival:


Sun Island is where the annual Snow Festival takes place. The festival takes advantage of the frigid weather here, and lasts from the first week of January to the last week of February- I’ve been told this year is unusually warm, but it was still below freezing every day, so i can’t imagine what the typical winter is like here. An entrance ticket is pricey by Chinese standards (around 320 RMB) but you get to spend the entire day walking around/ into/ under massive snow sculptures. And some of them are truly fantastic!


Paid 20 RMB to get a photo with a tranquilized fox/ dog/ furry creature. Please ignore my heavy duty purple gloves- my black leather gloves did not provide sufficient insulation, and had to pick between looking fashionable or losing all my fingers to frostbite.

an ice maze in the center of a frozen lake
ice slides and sculptures. theres a modified bicycle-sled of sorts, on the bottom right. love it

The Frozen Songhua River 松花江

The mighty Songhua River is frozen solid from shore to shore in the winter months. It is in this river that the massive blocks of ice are mined to make the ice structures that are placed throughout the city.


The ice is so thick that I have seen SUVs casually parked in the middle of the river. There are dozens of activities to enjoy here, all for a small fee.

ok, i was really tempted to try this!

There were mules pulling carriages, huskies pulling sleds, ATVs pulling tubes, adults pulling children around on boards, ice skating, setting off fireworks at night (dangerous), and all sorts of other wintry nonsense.

bottom right: a four wheeler/ ATV waits for tourists to arrive to sit in the dozen inner tubes, they will be pulled around in circles at fast speeds for ten minutes or so. WITHOUT HELMETS
i spent the afternoon practicing ice ballet

Ice and Snow World 冰雪大世界


This is the showstopper of Harbin. After another pricey entrance ticket (450 RMB), I stepped into a dreamlike winter spectacle, where entire palaces and temples were recreated with blocks of cool blue ice. you could climb up the structures (which are several stories tall) and then slide down with a sled from a separate exit.


The temple of heaven that I adored so much in Beijing made an appearance, this time reinterpreted with a frosty blue glaze


Artists from around the world came to carve their creations into glass-like ice.

a glittering sunset from one of the ice castle towers. BRING SUNGLASSES

At night the entire park is lit up in LED colors in every shade of the rainbow.

a female ice gymnast, against a backdrop of the temple of heaven
snow buddha. bring extra money to burn incense if you choose.

It was visually stunning, overwhelming, and somewhat psychedelic, similar to what someone might hallucinate after chugging a half pint of Nyquil mixed with Vodka and RedBull. truly unforgettable

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this would make a great venue for an EDM festival


I packed winter Tretorn boots and wore three layers of socks every day. Even then my toes were cold. It was so cold that whenever I removed my gloves to take a photo, within 45 seconds my fingers would start to hurt from freezing temperatures. The iphone would occasionally shut off on its own from the cold. I also wore an inner layer of thick winter pants, and a heavy winter coat.

The roundtrip flight was insanely expensive – $500USD – but this was expected, given that I was visiting at peak season (Jan – Feb). Still it is a small price to pay for the once in a lifetime experience of dancing on a frozen river and spending a few days in the closest environment humans could create to Disney’s Frozen.